Praying in The Closet

King of Kings, 1961

In gay priest Malcolm Boyd’s popular prayerbook Are You Running With Me, Jesus?, queer insight elevated Christian practice

When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
—Matthew 6:5-6

Straight Christian culture is often pretty queer.

This queerness is most obviously visible in the theatrical extremes of evangelical or Catholic culture: in the eyes of Tammy Faye, or in the red and reportedly Prada slippers of Pope Benedict XVI. Tammy Faye Bakker and the former Pope are hyper-stylized objects of camp iconography, ripe for queer appropriation. They also symbolize contrasting straight Christian attitudes toward queerness, with Tammy Faye celebrated as a gay-friendly diva and Benedict criticized as a remote and unyielding enforcer of traditional doctrine.

Queer straight Christianity is also easy to see in the over-compensating behavior of “ex-gay” and anti-gay activists, and in the homophobic preaching of people like the disgraced mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll, who obsessively warned his followers against the dangers of “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ”—a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy.” This is a kind of straight Christianity that is queer insofar as it is constantly haunted by a homosexuality it hates.

It might also make sense to think about some modern forms of liberal Protestantism as a kind of self-consciously queer straight Christianity. As more and more churches open their pews and pulpits to openly LGBT Christians, many mostly straight and cis congregations are flying rainbow flags and self-consciously adapting their language, rituals, and customs to accommodate the LGBT members in their midst. They are carefully queering themselves, or trying to.

But queer straight Christianity is not always camp or callous or open and affirming. It can be subtly, subliminally queer as well; coolly and quietly queer at heart. At least this is the case with the pop phenomenon Are You Running With Me, Jesus?, a 1965 book of prayers that sold over a million copies to people across the Christian spectrum and beyond, got rave reviews from church publications and the New York Times, and was written by an Episcopal priest who didn’t come out of the closet till over a decade after its publication.

Malcolm Boyd’s Are You Running With Me, Jesus? was a transformational event in the history of pop culture and mainstream American Christianity, a genre-bending set of prayers—Langston Hughes called them poems—that blended the vernacular extemporaneous style of evangelical Protestantism with the Episcopal tradition of reading from a portable Book of Common Prayer. But the book’s subject matter challenged both low- and high-church propriety, taking up themes that the blurb on the back calls “raw, naked, in the best sense ‘vulgar.’” Whitman-like, the speaker begins with “Prayers for the Free Self,” offering personal lyrics for moments of euphoria, insomnia, apathy, “dark reds and crying blues,” and what happens when “the record sends me, Jesus, but the magic doesn’t last.”

In subsequent sections—“Prayers for the Free Society,” “Prayers for Racial Freedom,” “Prayers in the City,” “Prayers on the Campus”—the speaker prays for specific unnamed persons, often strangers, who are simultaneously types and individuals: an old man resting in a window, a migrant farmworker old before her time, a young executive in a new blue car, a jazz musician who is “looking at the people, right into their dead and alive eyes,” a woman who “has more writing talent than a dozen other people, but her life is going down the drain. She never learned how to live with her talent or use it.” There are meditations on movies: Nothing But a Man; Breathless; La Strada. There is a whole section on “Prayers for Sexual Freedom”—a typical prayer begins, “This man and woman are afraid of sex and each other and living.” And there are “Prayers on Traditional Themes” that question tradition. The “Prayer on Holy Communion” begins almost like an existential exclamation before a walk of shame: “Jesus, we’re here again. What are we doing here?”

Are You Running’s aesthetic is cool, not camp. The cover is a candid black-and-white snapshot of its author wearing a clerical collar and lighting a cigarette. The prayers are written in simple conversational language and printed as bullet-point lists in minimalist san-serif font. And the voice of the book is casual even when it’s uncomfortable, imbued with an affect its author calls “a kind of Christian nonchalance.” Homosexuality as such is neither hysterically condemned nor strenuously suppressed in the book, but instead mentioned calmly, once, in a short and perfectly pitched prayer titled “This is a homosexual bar, Jesus”: “This isn’t very much like a church, Lord, but many members of the church are also here in this bar. … If they knew how, a number of them would ask you to be with them in both places. Some of them wouldn’t, but won’t you be with them, too, Jesus?” It’s a simple, straightforward, mildly detached request that lends itself neither to passionate queer appropriation or passionate queer identification. In a way, it’s the straightest part of the book.

What’s queer is everything else: the speaker’s unspoken and unexplained singleness (he never mentions a partner, children, or family of origin), his transient and contingent sense of community (restless in church, he finds connection in lonely moments shared with strangers), his terrain (bars, city streets, parties, the movie theater), and his recurring metaphors (bondage, freedom, and masks).

To pray with Are You Running is to enter an emotional landscape that agonizes endlessly about authenticity: “This isn’t me here, Jesus. This really isn’t me. You know it, but nobody else does. I’m putting on a good act, but you know what a lousy act it is”; “The masks are on parade tonight, Jesus. The masks are smiling and laughing to cover up status anxieties and bleeding ulcers”; “Why won’t they let him be himself, Lord?”; “She dislikes herself, or at least, the self she feels she was handed but can’t figure out. She thinks she must be two different selves, the operating one and another which is hidden under layers of complexity she can’t get to. She wants to find out who that other self is because she sometimes believes she would like to be it.”

To pray with Are You Running is to grapple with feelings of self-loathing and self-bondage: “When I look ahead tonight I can see only futility, pain, and death. I am only a rotting body, a vessel of disease, potentially a handful of ashes after I am burned”; “I feel like a slave bound in chains and branded by a hot iron because I’m a captive to my own will.”

It is to enter into a social landscape of deracination and transience: “All the roots I thought I had are gone. Everything in my life is in an upheaval”; “I am here with these others for only a few hours. I will be gone tomorrow.”

It is to enter a cultural landscape in which you are told to hear prayers in the works of Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, and Jean Genet, and to look for communion and community at the movies: “I feel the closeness of other persons near me in the theater. I’m not suffering alone. … When the lights come up, and the movie has ended, will we remember anything of our closeness, Lord, or will we all be sitting quite alone?”

It is to enter an urban streetscape in which you habitually gaze at strangers and speculate on their feelings and desires: to practice a form of prayer that is not entirely different from cruising.

It is to connect the personal and the political—to see the struggle for a “Free Self” as part of a political “Freedom Struggle” to which the book is committed (Malcolm Boyd was a Freedom Rider and labor agitator, and he dedicated the book to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and other activists).

And in its metaphor of running with Jesus, it is to imagine Christian life as simultaneously intimate and unsettled, in pursuit and in flight.

This was a form of prayer rooted in Boyd’s experience as a gay man forced to live and pray in a closet. And it was apparently exactly the kind of prayer that mainstream mid-’60s Christians had been craving. Are You Running was a national sensation, featured by Time and Newsweek and heralded as the future of religion—“a real and meaningful faith expressed in today’s language,” according to the afterword of my 1967 Avon paperback edition. As befits its title, Boyd took Are You Running on the road: performing the prayers at the legendary hungry i nightclub in San Francisco on the same bill as groundbreaking comedian and activist Dick Gregory, and at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Washington National Cathedral with accompaniment by jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd. Byrd and Boyd ultimately released the LP of Are You Running on Columbia Records, and Boyd went on a tour of churches and campuses around the country.

In the wake of the book’s success, Boyd found himself in the strained situation of simultaneously praying in the closet and on the street-corner. Everywhere he went, his public prayers from the closet were celebrated for their openness and authenticity. The author of the Avon edition afterword calls the three-hour performance Boyd gave at Broadway United Church of Christ “one of the most authentic church experiences I ever witnessed,” and comments repeatedly on his “honesty and directness,” his “unadorned earnestness”: “He looks you square in the face, and those eyes tell you he is absolutely on the level, completely honest, and serious.”

Boyd’s unapologetic expressivity about struggle and masquerade made him seem a man without secrets, and it was a role he performed persuasively and generously as America’s “Chaplain-at-Large,” running from city to city, staying up late every night talking to students and congregants and fans, never at home or at rest. In his 1978 memoir Take Off the Masks he wrote, “Following the publication of Are You Running With Me, Jesus? I had become a celebrity. This intensified the dichotomy between my public and private ‘lives.’ … I had found no way I might ever know a depth of freedom in my own gay experience. I felt utterly trapped.” His own prayers against bondage and inauthenticity became a constraint to him, even as they were experienced as liberating realness for the millions of mostly straight people who prayed them.

As a text by a closeted gay man that was rapturously embraced by a mainstream religious culture that it subsequently helped to transform, infusing it with new and undefined countercultural energy, Are You Running doesn’t fit easily into our common categories of how queer sexuality, mainstream Christianity, and popular culture typically intersect. It’s not lavishly excessive; it’s not homophobic; it’s not openly allied or out. But the phenomenon of the book and its performance and reception are still a kind of “queer straight” Christianity, demonstrating how queer feelings and experiences could become the vessel for mainstream Christianity’s spiritual restlessness, and its desires for freedom, justice, coolness, and modernity.

Are You Running taught straight Christians to “pray the gay way” as they channeled their desire and devotion through Boyd’s words. Through its urban, restless, rootless moods, its longing for freedom and anonymity and escape, its anguished obsession with authenticity and masks, its habitual imagined intimacies with strangers and its transient and contingent models of community, Are You Running With Me, Jesus? made a certain kind of mid-century gay male sensibility into the most popular Protestant mode of prayer, at least for a while.

Meanwhile in the years after the book’s publication Boyd gradually withdrew from his public life, more and more suffocated by the spontaneous authenticity he was expected to repeatedly perform. He ultimately became one of the first and highest-profile ministers to identify as gay.

Paradoxically, in leaving the closet Boyd lost his status as an “authentic” voice for mainstream Christianity, but he found a new ministry in the movements for LGBT liberation and other freedom struggles within and outside the church. And Are You Running lived on, republished and updated for its 25th anniversary as “A Spiritual Companion to the 1990s,” with special attention to AIDS and the environment, and again for its 40th anniversary in 2006 with new prayers about aging and loss.

Boyd died a couple months ago at the age of 91, and the last thing he published was a meditation on the 50th anniversary of his most famous book. He reflected on the original New York Times review, which observed, “The eloquence of the prayers comes from the personal struggle they contain—a struggle to believe, to keep going, a spiritual contest that is agonized, courageous and not always won.” This struggle, rooted in but not reducible to Boyd’s sexuality, became a spiritual experience that was widely shared and honored in American Christianity through Boyd’s unique public/private prayer. After almost a century of struggle, Boyd wrote, “‘Agonized’ is an important word here. Can’t we be grateful for spiritual agony? It is a significant word in the practice of prayer. Don’t we share our agony with God?”